The Myth of Muscle Memory
|When accepted as truth by large numbers of people without investigation, a false myth can cause profound cultural change. Consider the vast numbers of people who have been seduced into drinking milk as a staple thinking one thing when the opposite is actually true. The dairy industry is well aware of the damage to health caused by consuming processed cow's milk derived from animals that are neither well or fed correctly. We are what we eat eats. So what corporations often do to protect their bottom line is claim the opposite of truth as fact and then make this claim to fame their crowning marketing virtue.
Most people have heard of muscle memory. When a person starts lifting weights after a lay off, it's much easier for them to return to their previous levels of size and strength than it was to get there the first time around. It also takes less time. Therefore the muscle fibers must obviously "remember" their former state.
Muscle fibers do not remember anything. Muscle fibers do not have a separate independent "mind" of their own. All memory is retrieved from inside the brain which commands all action and response. Like everything else on this planet muscle fibers simply adapt to the environment in which they are exposed to or bathed in. If they are forced to contract with a specific load causing stress, disruption and microfilament damage, they will adapt and remodel provided the conditions required for such adaptations are met. If there is insufficient or no load they will return to their former state and continue wasting in the absence of sufficient stimulation. What we don't use we lose. It's called disuse atrophy.
Here's the reason why progress is made more quickly the second, third or whatever time around, provided ones current state of health does not act as a biochemical hindrance. Our brains have the capacity to store data and skills learned from the past in the form of emotion and memory. The portion of the brain associated with memory includes the cortex of the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes, parts of the limbic system including the hippocampus and amygdaloid nucleus, and the diencephalon.
Think of the first time you learned to ride a bike. As a father, I watched each of my three children move from training wheels to none. It’s one of life's greatest moments, but I noticed that the transition time was different for each child and relative to desire. The more they wanted to ride without training wheels the less time it took to master the process.
Once the ability to balance a bicycle in motion is acquired and stored in our neurons it is never lost. There might be an initial wobbly period if we hop on a bike 20 years after our last ride, but the brain, not the muscle fibers that perform the work, will kick in and command the body to fulfill the desired request using whatever systems and muscle fibers are required provided they are functional and in good working order. The information stored as memory is drawn from deep inside the brain which then controls and commands everything else, including voluntary skeletal muscle fibers.
The education, knowledge and information we acquire originally when we first start training is never lost. After a lay off no time is wasted developing a relationship with the equipment. Like our first dinner date compared to 20 years of marriage, we don't experience the same initial stages of bumbling, shyness, formality and integration each time we sit down for dinner. After 6 months to 2 years of training for the first time, most of us develop an understanding of exercise training gained only by experience. We learn how to train. We get the feel of it. We learn how we respond individually to free weights, machines, cables, pulleys, weight stacks, sets and reps on so on. It's called a learning curve and it;s a one time deal. If we knew what we now know when we first started, we would have saved ourselves both time and energy. In other words muscle memory is simply the retrieval of information previously learned and applied with greater efficiency.
Physiologists know that any skeletal muscle activity that is learned can become essentially automatic with practice. Muscle memory is therefore a common term for neuromuscular facilitation, which is the process of the neuromuscular system memorizing motor skills. We know that repetition is the mother of skill and that practice makes permanent. After repeating the same movement over and over again, the movement seemingly becomes second nature. It's like we're not paying attention but of course it's all coming from the same region of the brain that controls everything.
It is now well known that the effects of nutrition and training significantly influence genetic expression. The longer we carry muscle mass or excess fat the more the body learns from that reality or physical state and recognizes it as "normal". This is known as the set-point theory. Our physical and mental state influence precise neurological, immunological and hormonal feedback loops that in turn influence our state. The longer we sustain a certain state the more likely the body will maintain that state, however, there are other forces outside of ourselves to contend with, such as oxidation, glycation, gravity and entropy. Left unattended all lean functional mass slowly slips away because as a whole, life as we know it is primarily catabolic.
A recent theory known as multi-nucleation might also be related to the phenomenon of muscle memory. Resistance training is known to create higher numbers of nuclei in muscle fibers. These nuclei may be retained even during non-use so that when skeletal muscle is once again exposed to resistance exercise and optimum nutrition, new protein synthesis can occur at an accelerated rate.
The next time you lift a weight ask yourself this, "Who's lifting the weight?". The answer is always the same. Put your mind in your muscle and your muscle in your mind. When the two become one you have now achieved something few people will ever experience.
As always, stay well